For such a relatively small slice of Northern California, the coastal towns of Monterey and Carmel and neighboring enclaves hold a surprisingly diverse array of attractions. You’d be hard-pressed to cover all the following activities in one long weekend, but every season here has its charms, so you’ll have several excuses to come back.
1. Visit Monterey Bay Aquarium
The nation’s premier aquarium since it opened in 1984, this all-ages, always-bustling destination at the edge of historic Cannery Row showcases the fascinating flora and fauna of waters shallow and deep: sea otters, kelp forests, jellies, sharks, turtles, penguins and many other creatures.
2. Bike the Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail
Bicycle or pedal in a six-person surrey (both rentable at various sites) along 18 impressively scenic miles from Castroville to Pacific Grove. Originally a railroad line that served Cannery Row’s sardine factories, the paved trail passes the Monterey Bay.
3. Shop and Dine in Downtown Carmel
The distinctive boutiques, shops and art galleries in the one-square-mile village of Carmel-by-the-Sea stand side by side with cozy restaurants and cafes, many serving fresh-caught local seafood, produce from nearby farms and the region’s outstanding wines. Charming passages and stairways connecting the hillside streets make it fun to wander.
4. Explore the Coastline
While the sandy beaches, craggy cliffs and windswept cypresses along Pebble Beach’s 17-Mile Drive justify paying admission ($10.50 per vehicle), it’s free to wend your way elsewhere along the Monterey Peninsula. Follow Ocean View Boulevard from Pacific Grove to Sunset Drive at Asilomar State Beach for exhilarating views.
5. Golf in Spectacular Settings
Pebble Beach Golf Links, Spyglass Hill Golf Course and the Links at Spanish Bay, all at the Pebble Beach resort, are internationally renowned and priced accordingly. For players on a budget, the Pacific Grove Golf Links shares much of the same scenery at a fraction of the cost.
6. Paddle on the Bay
Whether you kayak or stand-up paddle (SUP), Monterey Bay offers several launch points for excellent wildlife watching, including sea otters, harbor seals and sea lions, not to mention glorious views of sand dunes, bustling wharves, and distant fields and forests. Take a guided tour for more insights and safety tips.
7. Tour a Lighthouse
The oldest continually operating lighthouse on the West Coast is sweetly stubby Point Pinos in Pacific Grove, built in 1855. Tours (1 to 4 p.m. Thursday–Monday) illuminate the hardy lifestyle of former keepers as well as the impressive original lens.
8. Admire Migratory Wildlife
A variety of whales and dolphins migrate around and through Monterey Bay throughout the year; look for humpback whales mid-April through mid- December. Thousands of monarch butterflies spend the winter, typically mid-October through mid-February, clustered on trees in the Monarch Grove Sanctuary in Pacific Grove, where docents help explain their behavior.
9. Taste Fine Wines
Monterey County is home to numerous microclimates and soils, creating a cornucopia of terroirs. You can sample the wares at the many wineries along River or Carmel Valley road or walk from one tasting room to the next in downtown Carmel.
10. Visit a Mission
The lives of California’s native peoples were irrevocably altered by the arrival of Spanish explorers and Catholic monks, who forced them to live and work on compounds such as the Carmel Mission. Beauty, tragedy, faith and sacrifice intermingle in the history of its lovely grounds and the restored, still-active church.
This article originally appeared in Marin Magazine’s February 2020 issue under the headline “Savor the Seaside”.
For more articles on California getaways, check out our Travel + Outdoors page.
Jeanne Cooper, former San Francisco Chronicle Travel editor, writes frequently about the Wine Country for Marin Magazine and other publications. She is particularly fond of wines from the Alexander and Dry Creek valleys. She supports ongoing work of Ecumenical Hunger Project in East Palo Alto and the disaster response efforts of World Central Kitchen and San Francisco-Marin Food Bank.